Iraqi Kur­dish forces ad­vance near Mo­sul

Baltimore Sun - - NATION & WORLD - By Qassim Ab­dul-Zahra and Joseph Krauss

ZHAZER, Iraq — Iraqi Kur­dish forces pushed to­ward Mo­sul on Sun­day, cor­don­ing off eight vil­lages and com­ing within 5 miles of the north­ern city held by Is­lamic State, which staged an at­tack in a western town hun­dreds of miles away in an ap­par­ent di­ver­sion­ary tac­tic.

The Kur­dish forces, known as pesh­merga, said the area they cor­doned off mea­sures around 38 square miles and that they also se­cured a “sig­nif­i­cant stretch” of high­way. The state­ment said eight car bombs were de­stroyed in the op­er­a­tion, in­clud­ing three by U.S.-led coali­tion air­craft, and “dozens” of mil­i­tants were killed.

The of­fen­sive near the town of Bashiqa came nearly a week af­ter Iraq an­nounced the start of the long-awaited Mo­sul of­fen­sive. Iraqi and Kur­dish forces are ap­proach­ing from the north, east and south through a belt of mostly aban­doned and heav­ily mined vil­lages.

Maj. Gen. Haider Fadhi, of Iraq’s spe­cial forces said they also took part in the op­er­a­tion and that Bashiqa was com­pletely en­cir­cled.

Is­lamic State has put up stiff re­sis­tance in many ar­eas and has car­ried out at­tacks fur­ther afield that ap­pear aimed at di­vert­ing at­ten­tion from the Mo­sul op­er­a­tion.

Is­lamic State mil­i­tants stormed into the town of Rutba, in far western Iraq, un­leash­ing three sui­cide car bombs that were blown up be­fore hit­ting their tar­gets, ac­cord­ing to the spokesman for the Joint Mil­i­tary Com­mand, Brig. Gen. Yahya Ra­sool.

He said some mil­i­tants were killed and de­clined to say whether any civil­ians or Iraqi forces were killed. He said the mil­i­tants did not seize any gov­ern­ment build­ings and that the sit­u­a­tion “is un­der con­trol.”

Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the top U.S. com­man­der in Iraq, con­firmed there had been a com­plex at­tack in Rutba and said he ex­pects more such di­ver­sion­ary at­tacks as Iraqi forces close in on Mo­sul.

Is­lamic State car­ried out a large as­sault on the north­ern city of Kirkuk on Fri­day, in which more than 50 mil­i­tants stormed gov­ern­ment com­pounds and other tar­gets, set­ting off more than 24 hours of heavy fight­ing and killing at least 80 peo­ple, mainly se­cu­rity forces.

The Mo­sul of­fen­sive in­volves more than 25,000 Iraqi ground forces as well as U.S.-led coali­tion air­craft and ad­vis­ers. It is ex­pected to take weeks, if not months, to drive Is­lamic State from Iraq’s sec­ond-largest city, home to more than a mil­lion civil­ians.

Bashiqa is close to a mil­i­tary base of the same name where some 500 Turk­ish troops are train­ing Sunni and Kur­dish fight­ers for the Mo­sul of­fen­sive. Turkey’s prime min­is­ter, Bi­nali Yildirim, said Sun­day that Turk­ish tanks and ar­tillery had be­gun aid­ing the Kur­dish forces in the Bashiqa of­fen­sive.

The pres­ence of the Turk­ish troops has an­gered Iraq, which says it never gave them per­mis­sion to en­ter the coun­try and has called on them to with­draw. Turkey has re­fused, in­sist­ing that it play a role in re­tak­ing Mo­sul from Is­lamic State.

U.S. De­fense Sec­re­tary Ash Carter has vis­ited both coun­tries in re­cent days, and was in the Kur­dish re­gional cap­i­tal, Ir­bil, on Sun­day. Af­ter meet­ing with Turk­ish lead­ers, Carter an­nounced an “agree­ment in prin­ci­ple” for Turkey to have a role in the op­er­a­tion. But Iraqi Prime Min­is­ter Haider al-Abadi told Carter on Satur­day that Mo­sul was an “Iraqi bat­tle.”

Mean­while, UNICEF’s Iraq rep­re­sen­ta­tive, Peter Hawkins, said chil­dren in and around Mo­sul are at risk of death or in­jury from the fight­ing, as well as sex­ual vi­o­lence, kid­nap­ping and re­cruit­ment by armed groups.

AH­MAD AL-RUBAYE/GETTY-AFP

Iraqi forces fire ar­tillery shells Sun­day from the out­skirts of Al Khuwayn, south of Mo­sul.

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